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Senate GOP blocks infrastructure bill amid pressure campaign on rural Minnesota lawmakers

Republicans held firm in voting against bonding in an effort to advance tax cuts at the Legislature.

Leading up to the Senate vote on Thursday, supporters of the bonding bill rallied outside the Senate chamber.
Leading up to the Senate vote on Thursday, supporters of the bonding bill rallied outside the Senate chamber.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Last week, state Rep. Spencer Igo, R-Wabana Township, voted with a small group of Minnesota House Republicans to help the DFL pass a $1.9 billion package of infrastructure projects.

On Thursday, his counterpart in the Senate — Rob Farnsworth of Hibbing — voted against the same plan as Senate Republicans blocked a major construction bill from reaching the desk of Gov. Tim Walz as part of a bid to secure new tax cuts.

“It was a tough vote but I’m getting more emails and requests from people to end the tax on Social Security,” Farnsworth said after the debate. “That’s what my district wants more than anything.”

The defeat of the bonding bill was the latest development in an escalating game of political chicken over money that would pay for things like roads, parks, water treatment plants and college buildings across Minnesota.

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The vote also illustrated the divide among Republicans, particularly in rural areas, as the party debated whether to stall a bonding bill as a negotiating tactic or greenlight money to pay for critical infrastructure. 

Bonding is unique in that it requires a 60% supermajority to pass in the House and Senate, meaning DFLers who control the Legislature need some GOP votes to pass a borrowing bill. As a result, Republican leaders have used their one major piece of leverage to advocate for tax cuts with Minnesota’s $17.5 billion surplus by withholding votes for infrastructure that otherwise has bipartisan support.

Democrats, meanwhile, have conducted an intense pressure campaign to get Republicans in Greater Minnesota on board with bonding, including by lobbying mayors in GOP districts to arm-twist their legislators.

Minnesota has gone more than two years without a bonding bill, an unusually long gap that has frustrated legislators and local government officials who complain of growing needs. But the two parties remain locked in a stalemate, causing emotions to boil over — and accelerating DFL threats to move ahead without projects in Republican districts by using cash to pay for infrastructure, which needs only a simple majority vote. Democrats prefer to bond so they can stretch their surplus to pay for other priorities.

“If you want a project in the bonding bill the reality is … you have to vote for the bill,” said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, in an emotional committee hearing after the vote. Pappas chairs the Senate’s Capital Investment Committee.

“It’s like why in the world should I fund your project if you as a senator don’t care enough to vote for a bonding bill?” she said.

Senate shoots down the bill

The roughly $1.9 billion infrastructure package is really two bills. One $1.5 billion measure includes the bonding and a separate $400 million bill would be paid for in cash.

The package follows two years of failed talks when Republicans held the Senate and DFLers controlled the House. Democrats now hold majorities in both chambers and control the legislative agenda. They have pitched this bill as a reboot of a 2022 deal that was never passed but had bipartisan support.

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The party’s hope is to pass a major bonding bill now — with Republican votes to clear the supermajority requirement — and then approve a second infrastructure bill with cash later. That would allow the DFL to both address a large number of infrastructure needs and drain less money from the surplus that DFLers hope to use on other issues.

The DFL can afford to pay for infrastructure entirely with cash, which would allow them to skip negotiating with Republicans. And Democratic lawmakers have certainly threatened to do so. But it’s not the party’s first choice. “If we go to an all-cash bill, it’s going to be very difficult for us to replace $1.5 billion in bonds with all cash,” said Pappas, who chairs the Senate’s Capital Investment Committee.

The notion of a more one-sided cash bill and the years of failed negotiations over bonding was enough to make 21 House Republicans back the DFL plan. The $1.9 billion package includes equal money for local projects in Republican and DFL districts. Many of those GOP lawmakers live in rural districts where critical infrastructure can be far too expensive for smaller communities to shoulder through local property taxes.

Leading up to the Senate vote on Thursday, Democrats and bonding supporters held a press conference meant to convince other GOP lawmakers to follow suit.

Pappas listed off projects for cities in Republican districts like Monticello, Owatonna and Braham. Republican legislators also said Pappas and staff called mayors around the state, asking city officials to lobby GOP legislators.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas, chair of the Capital Investment Committee, spoke in support of the bonding bill at a State Capitol rally on Thursday.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
State Sen. Sandy Pappas, chair of the Capital Investment Committee, spoke in support of the bonding bill at a State Capitol rally on Thursday.
Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said he’s “urging rural Republicans to join the 21 House members, Republicans, that made this a bipartisan proposal.”

“It’s time for them to show up for Greater Minnesota,” he said. 

Members of trades unions, institutions that Republicans have made political overtures to in recent years, crowded outside the Senate chamber and chanted “jobs now” at lawmakers as they walked into the vote.

Democrats needed seven Republican legislators to cross the aisle for the $1.5 billion bonding bill. They got zero.

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During the floor debate, many GOP lawmakers said they weren’t opposed to the idea of a bonding bill or cash infrastructure and to not consider their vote against the legislation as a rejection of infrastructure needs. Rather, they said, it was a push to use the one point of leverage they had to ensure tax cuts, like ending a state tax on Social Security benefits. Some Republicans also asked to pay for the whole $1.9 billion package in cash to avoid incurring debt with a large surplus, assuming a cash bill includes their projects.

Many DFLers do support tax cuts and rebate checks, including some whom want to eliminate the Social Security tax. But Democratic leaders will likely wait until they have a larger budget deal between the House, Senate and Walz before passing anything of that nature. Republicans are also skeptical they’ll do any major cuts.

Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said DFLers called officials in Owatonna, a city in his district, which he called “kind of a cheap shot.” 

There is $11 million in the bonding bill to help Owatonna expand a wastewater treatment facility. Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, represents Owatonna in the state House and voted for the bonding bill last week. 

“Yes, they made calls concerned about the bonding bill, and yes, we need a wastewater treatment plant in Owatonna, no doubt,” Jasinski said. “But my … constituents are also texting me and calling me and emailing me and saying: ‘stand firm, we want tax relief, we need tax relief.’”

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Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said she has voted for “every bonding bill, every time.”

“I do that because bonding bills are important,” she said. But Nelson said she wouldn’t vote for this latest plan because it would come before “the responsibility that we have to get some of that surplus back to the hands of Minnesotans.”

After the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, told reporters that Minnesotans don’t want a “completely partisan bill” with projects only in DFL districts. “We want a bonding bill, and we want tax relief,” he said. “What’s so hard about doing that?”

After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mark Johnson, left, told reporters that Minnesotans don’t want a “completely partisan bill” with projects only in DFL districts. At right is state Sen. Karin Housley.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
After the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, left, told reporters that Minnesotans don’t want a “completely partisan bill” with projects only in DFL districts. At right is state Sen. Karin Housley.

DFLers escalate threats to pull projects

Shortly after, Pappas canceled hearings for other potential infrastructure projects in Republican districts that were scheduled for the afternoon. Angry GOP lawmakers complained that local officials were en route to the Capitol and accused Pappas of retribution and unethical conduct.

Jasinski said Democrats shouldn’t “Penalize our districts, our communities because we couldn’t vote for a bill because our residents have been asking for tax relief.”

“This is the one bill that the minority gets a voice in,” he said. “It’s the one, and you know if it was reversed you would be just as upset.”

Pappas shot back that she has tried to be bipartisan, hearing GOP bills for months and including them in the bonding bill that Republicans voted against. “Easily half” of the money was headed to rural Minnesota, Pappas argued, and she said Republicans needed to collaborate. (The committee ended up hearing one bill proposed by a Republican tied to Chisago County.)

“You had $31.5 million worth of projects … in the bonding bill that you voted against on the floor today,” Pappas said to Jasinski. “I was willing to give you $31 million and you voted it down. I don’t care about what you’re saying about taxes, that doesn’t concern me. My leadership has said repeatedly that there’s going to be tax relief, just not tied with a bonding bill.”

Pappas continued: “Yes there are consequences for bad votes, and there are consequences for the vote you took today.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Republican Sen. Mark Johnson is the minority leader.